Post Office scandal explained: What the Horizon saga is all about

Post Office scandal explained: What the Horizon saga is all about
Post Office workers

Senior figures from the Post Office and the technology firm Fujitsu are facing questions over what has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly prosecuted after faulty computer software calculated money was missing from post office branches.

The government has promised to quash their convictions and pay compensation.

What is the Post Office scandal?

More than 900 sub-postmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted for stealing money because of incorrect information provided by a computer system called Horizon.

The Post Office itself brought many of the cases to court, and between 1999 and 2015, it prosecuted 700 people – an average of one person a week.

Another 283 cases were brought by other bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service.

Many of those convicted went to prison for false accounting and theft. Many were financially ruined.

In 2017, a group of 555 sub-postmasters took legal action against the Post Office. In 2019, it agreed to pay them £58m in compensation, but much of the money was swallowed up by legal fees.

Although campaigners won the right to have their cases reconsidered, as at 15 January 2024, only 95 convictions had been overturned.

The Metropolitan Police is also investigating the Post Office over potential fraud offences arising from the prosecutions.

A public inquiry began in February 2021, chaired by Sir Wyn Williams.

The promotional image of all the actors in ITV's drama about the Post Office scandal

ITV

The issue was highlighted by the recent ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

What is Fujitsu’s Horizon system?

Horizon was developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, for tasks such as accounting and stocktaking. It was introduced by the Post Office in 1999.

Sub-postmasters quickly complained about bugs in the system after it falsely reported shortfalls – often for many thousands of pounds.

The Horizon system is still used by the Post Office, which describes the latest version as “robust”.

What was the effect on Post Office staff?

Many former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses say the scandal ruined their lives.

Some used their own money to cover non-existent shortfalls because their contracts with the Post Office stated they were responsible for any unexplained loss. Many faced bankruptcy or lost their livelihoods.

Marriages broke down, and some families believe the stress led to debilitating health conditions, addiction and even premature death.

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What has the government said it will do to support the victims?

Victims will be able to sign a form to say they are innocent, in order to have their convictions overturned and claim compensation.

Downing Street said it would work with Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure the people who were wrongly accused in those nations can also be cleared.

What compensation is available to Horizon victims?

Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake said the government has budgeted £1bn for compensation.

More than 4,000 people have been told they are eligible, under three separate schemes:

  • The Group Litigation Order (GLO) Scheme is for the 555 former postmasters (excluding those who had criminal convictions) who won their group lawsuit, but received relatively small payouts after legal costs. They will now be offered £75,000, but many are expected to push for more
  • The Overturned Convictions Scheme offers those eligible a fast-tracked £600,000 settlement, or the chance to negotiate a higher payment. All are entitled to an “interim” payment of £163,000 while final settlements are processed. Of the 95 convictions that have been overturned, only 31 of those people have agreed “full and final settlements”
  • The Horizon Shortfall Scheme is for those sub-postmasters who were not convicted or part of the GLO court action but who believe they experienced shortfalls because of Horizon. They can apply to have their cases independently assessed, and could ultimately be compensated

Prof Chris Hodges, chair of the the independent Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, told the BBC that some individual compensation claims are “well over £1m”.

Who has been held responsible for the Horizon scandal?

The Post Office is owned by the government. However, the Post Office Ltd board is responsible for day-to-day operations.

Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennell resigned in 2019 over the scandal. In January 2024, she said she would hand back her CBE after a petition calling for its removal gathered more than a million signatures.

In August 2023, the current chief executive Nick Read said he would return all of the bonus money he received for his work on the Horizon inquiry. He apologised for “the procedural and governance mistakes made”.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey is among several politicians facing questions over the scandal.

Mr Davey was postal affairs minister during the coalition government. In May 2010 he refused to meet Alan Bates, the sub-postmaster who led the campaign to expose the scandal, saying he did not believe it “would serve any purpose”.

BBC iPlayer

This Panorama special tells the story of those whose lives were utterly devastated, reveals the damning evidence that was kept from them and investigates how and why the Post Office, a multinational tech company and the government covered up the truth for so long. (UK only)

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Source: bbc.co.uk

By David Ryckman